Police mission

An Idaho Statesman article today started by reciting several recent police cases in Boise, all dangerous and all having in common the participation of someone who had a mental problem. It went on, “By noon Thursday, Boise Bench Patrol Officer Gary Wiggins had fielded four mental health-related calls. “It’s a daily occurrence for us,” said Wiggins, a 20-year veteran.”

No doubt it is. Police all over the country have been finding the same thing, a large and seemingly growing portion of what they do dealing not with conventional bad guys but with people whose issue are social and health-related. What varies from department to department is how they respond to this.

The Portland police bureau was one of the earlier major organizations in the country to go after this issue in a serious way. The last couple of chiefs have made it a priority – maybe driven especially by the fact that most of the city’s recent high-profile shootings have involved people with mental health problems – and have tried some new tactics. In some cases, that has meant police being pro-active, trying to work with people before a situation develops into crisis. It turns them, to a degree, into social workers. The city has established mental health liaison positions, intensive working relationships with social workers, and much more.

It’s a work in progress. The police association isn’t entirely happy, and neither are many of the mental health advocates. But there does seem to be a common recognition that for police to simply hang back and wait until shots are fired isn’t good enough.

The Statesman article suggests that Boise is still working through some of this in earlier stages:

“Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson said these cases and the May 31 death of Troy Epperly are among reminders that services are lacking for Idahoans who need mental health care and that police are shouldering a growing burden. Epperly confronted police outside a Boise residence after telling his estranged wife he intended “suicide by cop.” He refused to drop his gun. Police shot him. He died in the hospital. … Masterson and Wiggins hope for a day when mental health issues are resolved long before they become crises requiring police intervention.”

Come that day, police probably will have to be a pro-active part the situation before it turns deadly. And that will mean a revolution in policing.

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